Naomi Blake (née Dum) was born on 11th March 1924 in Mukaĉevo, Czechoslovakia. The youngest of ten children, she was originally named Zisel (meaning sweet) by her parents. She changed her name to Naomi in 1948.
In 1942, Naomi’s family included 32 members: four grandparents, her parents, nine siblings, six spouses and ten young nieces and nephews. By 1945 only eight members remained; the rest had been murdered during the Holocaust.
Much of Naomi’s life and work has focused on the expression of her experiences. However her work is principally optimistic, forward looking and positive. It stands determinedly to help keep alive the legacy of the six million slaughtered Jews, as well as promoting Naomi's vision for uniting faiths, building understanding between religions and her hope for the future.
Naomi’s home town, also known as Munkàcs, had a 13,000 strong Jewish community which made up almost half of its population and enjoyed religious and civic freedom. From 1938 Jews were persecuted on the streets and denied the ability to work, study and congregate. In 1944 the Germans set about implementing their “Final Solution”.
Naomi’s family was moved to the Jewish Ghetto. They were rounded up and marched to the local brick factory to board a crowded cattle truck to Auschwitz without food, water or sanitary facilities. Naomi was separated from her family, only learning much later of their fate in the gas chambers.
Naomi and her sister were set to work in a munitions factory in a labour camp, but they learnt to sabotage the bombs that they were assembling. They shared a bunk bed with seven other inmates, on little food and harassed by cruel prison guards. They survived this inhuman ordeal by escaping from a death march led by the German soldiers trying to evade the advancing Russians and destroy evidence of their monstrosities.
Naomi and her sister made their way back to Munkàcs by foot and by hitching rides, avoiding marauding Russian soldiers. Although reunited with two sisters and one brother, Naomi left to fulfil her dream of building a Jewish homeland. By then, the “Iron Curtain” had come down. Escaping again she made her way to Italy to board an illegal ship, bound for Palestine.
The boat was intercepted by the British and the passengers taken to Atlit Prison near Haifa. As hostilities between Arabs and the Jews increased with the UN decision to partition Palestine, Naomi joined the Palmach, set up to defend Jewish areas from Arab attack. She was hit in the neck by shrapnel from a British bullet and hospitalised for several weeks in the Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus.
There she first started to sculpt, carving olive wood. Following the British withdrawal and the declaration of the State of Israel, Naomi joined the Women’s Division of the Israel Defence Forces and was promoted to Sub-Lieutenant.
In 1952 Naomi left Israel to seek medical help and rejoin members of her family. She met and married a young German refugee, Asher, and settled in London. The early days were not easy as she knew no-one, spoke poor English and had no qualifications.
Following training at the Hornsey School of Art, Naomi’s work began with ceramic pots and portrait sculpture, progressing to figurative and then abstract work. Sculpting originally in clay and then in polystyrene for casting in bronze, she gradually reintroduced figurative elements in her work, showing the influences of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.
Her work developed through a cycle of embryonic forms, enclosed and protected figures, gradually opening out "to free the figure from its haven to stand against all adversity and spread its free wings". With her great interest in Jewish life and learning, she also sculpted imposing, expressive Biblical figures, bringing to life the strength and character of the Old Testament.
Her art affirms human values. Despite her experiences, Naomi has said:
"there is something positive in the human figure – there is a lot of good in people…with my past, if I were pessimistic, somehow, it wouldn’t have been worthwhile surviving".
Naomi Blake exhibited at the Salon de Paris in the 1960’s and was elected an Associate of the Royal Society of British Sculptors, becoming a Fellow in 1993. She has over 50 works on public display including at Norwich, Bristol and Portsmouth Cathedrals; St Anthony's College, Oxford; St. Botolph's Church, Great Ormond Street Hospital and Fitzroy Square, London; Norris Lea, Kingsbury, Oxford and Leeds Synagogues; The Hebrew University, and Tel Aviv University.
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